Principals Upfront “A school where I belong”

BRIDGE is part of a partnership with the Catholic Institute in Education, Sasol Global Foundation, Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance and the Wits School of Governance. The aim of the partnership is to run Principals Upfront, a series of public dialogues addressing the leadership role of school principals and giving principals a voice and a platform to share working practice and information about different facets of school leadership. We hosted our first Principals Upfront Dialogue of the year on Tuesday, 26th February at Sasol.

We were joined by Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray, authors of the book, “A school where I belong.” Two years ago Dylan and Roy started researching their book which deals with inclusion and exclusion in South African schools, based on their experiences of these issues in education. Both had worked with teachers on issues of identity, especially in relation to facing our past and developing democratic citizens. This goal is not achieved by chance, it comes about because of deliberate approaches and the belief that schools can be instrumental in this. In writing this book, the authors spoke with former students and teachers from former model C schools and private schools, and explored their views on the future of schooling. The interviews and the book itself were structured around 6 areas: facing the past, battling bias, seeking out difference, leading for change, and fostering civil discourse.

The Principals Upfront Dialogue series usually is structured as a panel discussion with a question and answer session. This event was structured differently, in that the authors took the audience through key elements of the book in a workshop style. Members of the audience were fully engaged, and had opportunities to ask questions as well as share their experiences in their different roles and contexts. The authors structured discussion through three key themes: (i) deliberately including; (ii) facing the past; and (iii) battling Bias.

Deliberately including

This touched on the racial history of South Africa and how model C schools have opened their doors to people of colour. Have there been active efforts to deliberately include these learners in the school culture and norms? Have schools asked themselves, “What does this mean to us as an institution, and what does it mean to our learners? What do we as a school need to do to make learners of colour feel more comfortable and more at home and more like they belong in a place that excluded them for so long?” The discussion around this theme focused on whether inclusion in schools has been done deliberately, and if these practices have been visible.

Facing the past

Our present is linked to the past. We cannot deal with problems we currently face without reflecting on the past. We need to acknowledge where we come from in order to deal with the racial inequalities and divisions that we currently face. Schools were built on a racially divided past, and those that opened the doors to people of colour in 1994 were previously attended only by white learners. This has had an impact on the school culture. There have been certain practices linked to this history. We need to be able to honestly reflect on how the past shapes us; this an important step that needs to take place not only in our communities but in our schools as well.

Battling bias

We all walk around with our biases towards people, situations and places. These are not always conscious. We see something and someone and immediately make certain assumptions or associations. While this is natural, we need to be aware of our assumptions. The first step in working to correct these biases is to acknowledge them.  Acknowledging our bias is not a “get out of jail” free card, it is taking a conscious step to work towards correcting something that has been entrenched in our past. It is important that teachers, principals and parents in the school community acknowledge all their biases.

The authors closed off the day by asking members of the audience to reflect on how they could implement the learnings shared in the session. We need to face the past and how that has affected our own contexts and spaces in order to move forward. This starts with us looking at our spaces to see if we are deliberately including others, and make the effort to do so, as this does not just happen. Principals are the key agents of change in schools and need to lead by example. The authors offered principals an opportunity for them to engage with them and invite them into their respective schools.  The book is available at bookstores nationwide as well as online platforms such as Takealot and Loot.